During the mid-1920s the six Genna brothers dominated Chicago’s Little Italy, the region around Taylor Street west of the river. They amassed considerable power and wealth by organizing residents into freelance alky cookers. The still tenders mixed up a mash with yeast and sugar; the rats that inevitably fell in became part of the recipe. After the yeast did its work, the mixture was slowly heated, alcohol wrung from its vapor. For this, urban peasants were paid the tantalizing remuneration of fifteen dollars a day. The Gennas were a violent lot with a background in the strong-arm extortion methods known as the Black Hand. Their gunmen subscribed to the old-world superstition that a smear of garlic made bullets more lethal. As the Genna power grew, they came into conflict with both the North Side forces under Weiss and with their nominal ally Capone. The inevitable clashes resulted. Three of the brothers were killed during a six-week period in 1925.
Up the road from the O’Donnell shooting, LeVell and I follow the last steps of Mike (“The Devil”) Genna. He died on the morning of June 13, 1925, after a gunfight with police at the southwest corner of Fifty-ninth Street and Western Avenue. The vacant lot he crossed is still empty. We stroll down the alley to the back of 5941 South Artesian, where Genna, shot in the thigh, smashed a window to climb into the basement. When he was captured, Mike tried to kick the ambulance attendant in the face. “Take that, you son of a bitch.” He quickly bled to death.
Farther north and west, around the corner from the old Genna domain, the Maxwell Street police station still stands as a monument to the beleaguered, corrupt police force of the time. This stone fortress, at the corner of Morgan and Maxwell streets, the oldest station in Chicago, once looked out across what the Chicago Tribune called “the wickedest police district in the world.” During the twenties officers from Maxwell Street lined up at the Genna warehouse at 1022 West Taylor Street to receive their payoffs: $15 to $125 a month for beat cops, $500 for captains. The department provided the gangsters with a personnel list so that cops from other districts couldn’t elbow in on the graft. More recently the station served as a set for the television series “Hill Street Blues.”